Thursday, November 19, 2009

Falling in love on the metro.

I've never fallen in love. I don't think I've even dipped my toes in. So here I use the term loosely, but I think you know what I mean. In Ukraine, I fall in love every day. On the metro, on the bus, walking around the city, old men, young men, every day.

Social law dictates that eye contact is strictly forbidden. Anything more than a passing glance will make people wonder. Don't get me wrong, staring is just fine. People stare at each other's clothes/shoes/hair/boobs/butts all. the. time. But eye contact is a different ball game. And it is a ball game that I miss. No friendly smiles at strangers, no blush-inducing winks. Time to step up to the plate.

I started out on the metro escalators. As I go down, I look at somebody going up, and I look them right in the eyes. I let my head turn a little as they pass, daring them to look back. Most of them look back for a moment, but then look away. If they are bold enough to hold my gaze, I give them a little wink and a smile. Nothing scandalous, and completely safe. We're going opposite directions, where it's impossible to turn around. This isn't a very rewarding form of entertainment since hardly anyone will lock eyes, but every once in awhile it works brilliantly. The other day a boy, probably about 15 years old, dared to return my stare. I winked and smiled, sending him off burrowing into his face into his scarf, grinning and blushing like mad. True love.

Camille and I were waiting on a bench in the station, watching the metro cars stop and then zoom off again. We weren't paying much attention, but one car pulled up and inside was a seriously good-looking guy. He sat inside the car, facing us through the window. We caught eyes, and without thinking, I smiled and waved at him. He smiled back and winked at me. Camille watched the whole thing and then blew him a kiss. He blew one back, and as the metro left the station we watched him turn to his friend, an excited smile plastered across his face. True love.

Saturday night, four of my favorite female friends and I adventured around town, allowing ourselves the luxury of laughing as much and as loudly as we wanted. Usually in public we try to keep our laughter and voices to a minimum, but we just didn't care. We walked down to the metro station and some guy approached us, obviously attracted by our extreme intelligence and sharp wit:
Guy(perfect, thick Ukrainian accent): Hello! Where are you from?
Us(still laughing): The States...America.
Guy: Oh, we do not like the United States.
Us: Uh...ok.
Guy: But Johnny Depp, he is American, no?
Us: Yeah!
Guy: Oh, we looove Johnny Depp.
Us: We love Johnny Depp too.
Guy: Do you want to drink some beer with me? Have some good times?
Us(still giggling): We don't drink beer!
Guy: Oh. What do you drink?
Us: Water!
Us: Milk!
Us: Fanta!
Guy: Fanta is poison!
Us: Kompot! (boiled fruit, basically)
Guy(thoroughly bewildered by this point): Oh yes, kompot!
Us: Yes, we looove kompot!
Guy: Ok, well, goodnight.
The poor guy. We thought it was insanely funny, but he was so confused by our drinks of choice. Still, with a pick-up line like "We hate the United States," he couldn't have expected much success. Not true love.

Earlier the same night (actually, about twenty seconds before), we walked by three young guys hanging out on the stairs. One guy was jamming his brains out on the guitar and singing along. Another friend held out an empty hat, asking strangers for money. The third guy stood around, just enjoying himself and watching the people walk by. When I walked by, the guy asking for money came up to me and held out the empty hat. I looked at him, looked down at the hat he held out, thanked him for the hat, and then put it on my head. He stared blankly. I laughed and handed it back to the confused kid. As I walked off, I turned back around to see the bewildered look on his face. He didn't get my joke, but his friend was howling with laughter. He smiled at me, blew me a giant kiss, and waved goodnight. His giant mustache was icing on the cake. Definitely true love.

Tonight was what really made me appreciate this whole falling-in-love-with-strangers business. Three of us got on the metro, the other two girls were talking to each other while I stood off by myself. Next to me stood a tall guy in the Kyiv police uniform. (Side note: The policemen here are impossible to take seriously. They are almost all our age, most of them really good-looking, and they seem to do nothing but stand around and enjoy looking official.) I could tell he was trying to catch my eye, but people on the metro usually stare when they hear English, so I just routinely ignored him. Then I realized, oh wait, he's handsome and not trying to be a creep, so I looked around me and let him catch eye contact with me. We were standing right next to each other against the wall, so he leaned over to me and asked where I was from. We talked a little bit, and I was really grateful that he wasn't being a creepy slimeball, like so many of the men here. I told him that we were here teaching English to little kids, and he asked who our translator was. Oh, that was funny. He was shocked to learn that we had no translator, spoke hardly any Russian, and that my Ukrainian host family doesn't meet me at the metro to walk me home at night. At the next stop, where two metro lines meet, he asked if I was changing lines. He wanted to talk to me more, but we weren't going the same direction. I told him it was very nice to meet him, and watched him walk away. This time, I was the one to fall in love a little. Major kudos to guys like him: I am a girl he doesn't know, doing my best to ignore him, and I speak another language. He had the guts to patiently persevere and catch my eye, and then the courage to talk to me in a foreign language. Not only that, but he was extremely polite and remarkably un-slimy. He admitted not being too happy with his English skills, but I was impressed, and not just by his language. True love.

In order to participate in this program, every teacher has to sign a contract that we won't "pair off" with anybody in the group or in the country. No Ukrainians, no Americans, nobody. It's a pretty smart rule and helps prevent a lot of drama within the group (there's only one guy in our group of 15 teachers), and helps prevent us from being sold into sex slavery (you think I'm joking). We call it the "Man Diet." We don't want to get involved with Ukrainian men or anything like that (unless you're looking for a husband drunk before 10am every day), but being on the Man Diet sucks, nonetheless. We really would choose to be on the Diet anyway, but the fact that it is a contract-inflicted agreement just seems to make it such a restraint. At least we're allowed to look. And, oh boy, we do! None of those ridiculous saggy gangsta pants here. The Ukrainian men are deliciously vain, and wear their pants on their waist and just fitted enough to make us drool. Take note, America!

I've made it a conscious point to fall in love a little every day.

Come to Ukraine and understand:
This is a country of well-dressed, if not necessarily well-behaved, men who believe that declaring passionate love is their sole duty in life. Unfortunately, this makes them lousy husbands, as they don't find it necessary to contribute anything to marriages besides love. And even that wears thin. It's heartbreaking to see all the women here carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. As one woman here put it, Ukrainian men are, from a very young age, "sad lost puppy dogs." They live to drink, and it seems to be the only thing they have to look forward to. Drinking in public is legal. The women do it too, but the men drink constantly, even in the mornings. A sad existence, totally devoid of all the freshness the world has to offer.


  1. Dear Alena,

    I HEART you. And this post - totally FABULOUS. Need I say more?

    Let's fall in love this week. Not together obviously, but together. Like on the Metro and downtown. I want to make eye contact love with an unabashedly metrosexual Ukrainian male... soon. Plan?

  2. I read your posts, Alena, and continue in awe that this is my daughter writing this stuff. And I can't be certain, but I think on the day you were born you winked at me when I caught you. It's been true love ever since. ;)
    Love, Dad


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